With Canada Day just around the corner, it is time to talk a little bit about “noise phobias”, or an inappropriate reaction to noise. Most people have owned, or know someone who has owned, a pet that was bothered by thunder, fireworks or other loud noises. While some cats do respond abnormally to noise, the problem is much more widespread with dogs.
So, for example, if your dog panics during thunderstorms or fireworks, find videos online and play them with the volume VERY low. If your pup is relaxed while the video is playing, give lots of rewards! Do this often, gradually increasing the volume. The goal is to have the dog ignore the sound by focusing on something else. However, if there are any signs of fear or anxiety, you have to turn the volume back to the last level that the dog was ok with and start over. Eventually, your dog should be able to focus on the reward and ignore the actual sound (thunder etc.).
There are also other factors that we must contend with that can make this process more difficult. Dogs with sensitivities to thunder storms can feel the barometric pressure change before the storm actually hits, so they are much harder to calm down. Likewise, dogs who react to fireworks may also react to flashing lights. These things have to be addressed as well before the phobia is resolved.
Another very helpful trick is to use scents to calm your dog. Adaptil (link) is a “happy dog” pheromone that can help limit stress and anxiety and comes in collars, sprays or room diffusers. You can also dab lavender essential oil on your dog’s collar or bandana for a natural way to easy stress. These things should be used in conjunction with training, not as a replacement. There are also some pharmaceutical options that are very safe and effective at decreasing anxiety. If you think your dog could benefit from some medicated relaxation, contact your veterinarian.
The most important thing you can do to help calm your anxious dog is to remain calm yourself. By offering reassurance and “rewards” when they are stressed you are not reinforcing bad behaviour, you are attempting to change how your dog feels about a situation.
Dr. Juanita Ashton, BSc, DVM, ACDBC-IAABC is a certified Canine Behavioural Consultant, and one of the owners of the Elmsdale Animal Hospital